By: Travis Waldron
The United States Patent and Trademark Office has canceled six federal trademark registrations for the name of the Washington Redskins, ruling that the name is “disparaging to Native Americans” and thus cannot be trademarked under federal law that prohibits the protection of offensive or disparaging language.
The U.S. PTO’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board issued a ruling in the case, brought against the team by plaintiff Amanda Blackhorse, Wednesday morning.
“We decide, based on the evidence properly before us, that these registrations must be cancelled because they were disparaging to Native Americans at the respective times they were registered,” the board wrote in its opinion, which is here. A brief explanation of how the Board reached its decision is here.
“The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed with our clients that the team’s name and trademarks disparage Native Americans. The Board ruled that the Trademark Office should never have registered these trademarks in the first place,” Jesse Witten, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, said in a press release. “We presented a wide variety of evidence – including dictionary definitions and other reference works, newspaper clippings, movie clips, scholarly articles, expert linguist testimony, and evidence of the historic opposition by Native American groups – to demonstrate that the word ‘redskin’ is an ethnic slur.”
“I am extremely happy that the [Board] ruled in our favor,” Blackhorse said in a statement. “It is a great victory for Native Americans and for all Americans. We filed our petition eight years ago and it has been a tough battle ever since. I hope this ruling brings us a step closer to that inevitable day when the name of the Washington football team will be changed. The team’s name is racist and derogatory. I’ve said it before and I will say it again – if people wouldn’t dare call a Native American a ‘redskin’ because they know it is offensive, how can an NFL football team have this name?”
The Trial and Appeals Board rescinded the team’s trademark protections in a 1999 ruling that was part of a case filed in 1992. A federal court later overturned the ruling on appeal due to a technicality that the plaintiffs say has been fixed in this most recent case.
The team will appeal the case, according to a statement from its attorney, and it will be able to keep its trademark protection during appeal. Further, losing the trademark would not force the team to change its name — as the PTO pointed out in its fact sheet about the case, the Trial and Appeal Board “does not have jurisdiction in a cancellation proceeding to require that a party cease use of a mark, but only to determine whether a mark may continue to be registered.”
The absence of federal trademark protection, however, could limit the team’s legal protections to state and common laws when others use their name, so others can’t just start marketing new “Redskins” merchandise. Still, it could potentially cost the team — and, because of the NFL’s revenue-sharing model, other NFL teams — money. In the previous case, the team’s attorneys argued that losing trademark protections and the exclusive right to their brand would cause “every imaginable loss you can think of.” For that reason, targeting the trademark has long been thought of by opponents of the team’s name as the easiest avenue to changing it.
The team is confident that it will prevail on appeal.
“We’ve seen this story before. And just like last time, today’s ruling will have no effect at all on the team’s ownership of and right to use the Redskins name and logo,” team attorney Bob Raskopf said in the statement. “We are confident we will prevail once again, and that the Trial and Appeal Board’s divided ruling will be overturned on appeal. This case is no different than an earlier case.”